in: Reviews

March 20, 2014

Israel Philharmonic Triumphant in Bruckner 8

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“Bruckner was the village idiot!” That is what my undergraduate music history teacher, an émigré from Vienna, told us about Anton Bruckner (1824 –1896). It seems that he was not alone in feeling that way. Bruckner’s student Gustav Mahler described him as “half simpleton, half God,” and Arnold Schoenberg, also a pupil of Bruckner, reportedly wrote that word—“idiot”—in the margin of one of his teacher’s works.

Neither Mahler, Schoenberg nor anyone sitting in the audience of Symphony Hall last night would have even imagined such things after listening to the performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (i.e., IPO) in a concert sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston. This was a profound musical experience, 80+ minutes without intermission of glorious sound and deep musical insights into a masterwork, performed by a world-class orchestra and conducted, from memory, by its “music director for life,” Zubin Mehta. The standing ovation it received was, at least this time, more than fully deserved.

Topping the list of pleasures that evening were the sonorities produced by the strings of the IPO, led this evening by one of the orchestra’s three concertmasters, Ilya Konovalov. Their sound was sumptuous, and evoked memories of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy in the first part of the 20th century. The other members of the orchestra were equally brilliant, and virtuosic. Special praise must be given to the brass, the first horn James Madison Cox in particular, who negotiated Bruckner’s difficult and mercilessly exposed French Horn parts with accuracy and brilliance. The woodwinds, especially the gorgeous performance of first flute Eyal Ein-Habar, were equally fine, and the powerful timpani performance of Dan Moschayev was overwhelming in the best sense of the word. This evening he was the timpanist of Bruckner’s dreams.

So what to think about the judgment of my music history teacher? He was certainly overstating the case, of course, but Mahler’s description of his own teacher might be closer to the mark, although Bruckner wasn’t a simpleton but a simple man. Although he ultimately attained great fame and respect, becoming professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Vienna Conservatory in 1868, he remained the small-town village schoolmaster and organist from Ansfelden, Upper Austria, his humble manner, painfully obvious inferiority complex and limited social skills leaving him completely unprepared for the hyper-sophistication and arcane musical politics of fin-de siècle Vienna. As Steven Ledbetter writes in his superb program notes, Bruckner “was a strange apparition in his simple costume…black baggy pants…a loose coat of notably unstylish cut…with his short and stocky build and his hearty appetite, he could easily have been taken for a peasant farmer.” No wonder Edward Hanslick, the leading music critic of the time and a passionate Brahmsian and anti-Wagnerian, gave Bruckner a rough time. Brahms himself was little better. He once described Bruckner’s symphonies as “Symphonic boa constrictors.” By this he might have meant a large, uncontrollable force swallowing up everything in its path. In a certain sense, Brahms was right: Bruckner swallowed up Baroque, Classical and Wagnerian styles and refashioned them into his own harmonic and structural language, both unique and profound.

Zubin Mehta conducts IPO for Celebrity Series (Robert Torres photo)

Zubin Mehta conducts IPO for Celebrity Series (Robert Torres photo)

The great performance of the eighth symphony by the IPO and Mehta also proved that history was wrong. The history of the orchestra itself is also fascinating and inspiring, almost as much as that of its country. In fact, the ensemble existed 12 years before Israel was created in 1948, when it was founded in 1936 by the great Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman; for its inaugural concert Toscanini flew in especially to conduct, as an eloquent gesture of support and anti-Fascism. Readers are urged to watch the excellent documentary on the subject: “An Orchestra of Exiles” (which was recently aired by WGBH here).

On a personal note, a special treat was to hear this concert sitting next to my wife Carol Lieberman, who was a member of the IPO from 1967-1969, arriving a few days after the Six-Day War; she played some Bruckner performances with Mehta during that time. Huberman, Toscanini and most of the original members of the orchestra are now long gone, but their vision survives. May the IPO continue to thrive…and play more Bruckner.

Mark Kroll recently returned from Bangkok, Hong Kong and Israel, where he performed recitals, gave master classes and lectured on the life and music of Ignaz Moscheles.

8 Comments

  1. I applaud and can appreciate the sense of great pride that many in the audience had last night at the opportunity to hear the flagship orchestra of Israel, a country that means so much to so many. But as a Bruckner-lover whose reason for attending the concert was solely because of the magnificent symphony on the program, let me just state that for me, the highlight of the evening was the performances of the national anthems of the U.S. and Israel.

    I believe the *only point* on which I agree with Mr. Kroll’s entire review is that indeed, the first flutist struck me as being outstanding.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 20, 2014 at 1:43 pm

  2. Alas, apart from a few close fly-bys in the Adagio and Finale, the massive emotional weight of the Bruckner 8th was hardly to be heard last night. I commend the IPO, who played sincerely and hard, but I have to agree with Mogulmeister. The performance was rather fierce, and mostly together, but lacked the refinement, the rhythmic flexibility that can disarm the heart and make it soar. I respect Zubin Mehta, but his conception of the piece had no room for nurturing the mood of the growing epiphany – his ever-sweeping stick often seemed to be waving his players quickly past those patches that cry out for the most tender expression.

    Still, it is always special to be seated in a room with a professional orchestra playing the Bruckner 8th.

    Comment by nimitta — March 20, 2014 at 3:21 pm

  3. I thought this was the one of the best Bruckner experiences I’ve had, as somebody who doesn’t eagerly seek out his work. The big picture made a lot of sense, I was only bored for maybe 10 minutes in the middle, and it was a treat to hear a very good ensemble in Symphony Hall that plays very differently from our BSO.

    It’s worth noting though that in some ways the IPO doesn’t reach the standard (or alternatively, you might say – fit the style) of the top modern U.S. orchestras. The string sections in particular don’t congeal – every player is playing in a different part of the bow, tremolo-ing at a different speed, and using different attacks. (Maybe this is what is meant by the Philadelphia comparison.) In some sense it doesn’t seem like very disciplined orchestral playing, but it comes together in a larger way.

    I also think it’s unusual enough for a foreign orchestra to bring their national anthem on tour that it should be mentioned in the review.

    Comment by Benjamin Pesetsky — March 20, 2014 at 5:00 pm

  4. Nimitta, I agree with you, your comments are fair and respectful. Thank you also for your kind words in response to my Kissin review. I’m glad you were also there and were as lucky as I was to attend such a spectacular concert.

    Benjamin, if I may, I don’t believe that Mr. Kroll’s comparison to the Philadelphia strings is at all appropriate. I went to college in Philly and for four years regularly attended Philadelphia Orchestra concerts at the end of Ormandy/start of Muti era, sitting up there right next to the chandelier in the old Academy of Music. Let me assure you, the IPO strings sound nothing like the Philadelphia Orchestra strings of that era.

    If you enjoyed the Bruckner performance last night and are intrigued to hear more, I would greatly encourage you to go out and pick up Karajan’s box set of Bruckner Symphonies 1-9, which these days is costing around $30 on Amazon (I paid around $90 when I bought it in 1993, and at that price it still felt like an incredible bargain given the amazing performances within). Most who know Bruckner’s symphonies and recordings and who don’t have an agenda will tell you that Karajan was one of the greatest Bruckner conductors of all time, if not the greatest (that would be my vote). Further, I would argue that his cycle of the Bruckner symphonies is one of the greatest recorded legacies in all of classical music. It’s an astonishing set, with performances that are deeply moving and exceptional on every level. The BPO outdo themselves, giving us orchestral playing that is so incredible that it’s almost unimaginable, with amazing tone, balance, and beauty. Karajan put forward interpretations that go right to the core of the music without eccentricities. It’s Karajan’s and the BPO’s finest hours, so to speak, and puts to shame any criticisms of Karajan as being an emotionless machine who only produced beautiful sound. I can’t imagine anyone will ever surpass these performances. The only performance in the set I would criticize is #1, which is the one symphony Karajan does not succeed at putting across, but arguably 2, 4, and 6 are the greatest versions of those symphonies ever recorded, and 3, 5, and 7-9 are all great performances by any standard.

    John Rockwell of the NY Times once made the comment that Karajan “owned” Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. Karajan’s final recording of it, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1988, is rather special, which in no way diminishes his 1975 recording with the BPO in the box set (which has a stronger, more urgent performance of the 4th movement, although the Vienna performances of the first three movements are superior). Some would argue that one hasn’t really heard the 8th until you’ve heard a Karajan performance of it. All four of his recordings are formidable performances, albeit with varying qualities of sound. Karajan said on many occasions that Bruckner’s 8th was a symphony that had “special meaning” to him, and I think I understand why. It’s also interesting to note that if one reviews the history of Karajan performances, one can see that Karajan performed the 8th symphony somewhere every single year, from the 1950s onward until he died. Have you ever heard of any other conductor who did that with any other symphony? I haven’t.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 20, 2014 at 6:51 pm

  5. One final Bruckner comment. Hans-Hubert Schonzeler distilled the essence of Bruckner, and said it better than anyone will:

    “Bruckner’s symphonies are in reality one gigantic arch, which starts on Earth amidst suffering humanity, travels up to the Heavens to the very throne of grace, and returns with a message of peace.”

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 20, 2014 at 6:59 pm

  6. Dear mr. Kroll,
    Please give my best regards to your wife from me. I remember her well from the time she played in the IPO. She was a wonderful person, always nice to all!
    I hope she remembers me…I was the cello section leader at that time (or maybe I got that job a year after she left).
    Glad you liked the orchestra.
    Simca

    Comment by simca heled — March 21, 2014 at 6:09 pm

  7. While the first flutist was listed in the program as Yossi, it was actually Eyal Ein-Habar playing. And yes, it was beautiful!

    Comment by Sarah Paysnick — March 22, 2014 at 7:57 am

  8. Dear Simca,
    Of course I remember you — and your wonderful cello playing! Do you remember when the IPO performed in the dessert surrounded by tanks, right after the Six-Day War? It was a great orchestra back then, and it still is.
    Carol

    Comment by Carol Lieberman — March 22, 2014 at 1:27 pm

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